In Canada, French and English (mostly) co-exist

Quebec defends its French-speaking heritage

Today's expression: In a pinch
Explore more: Lesson #674
May 13, 2024:

Canada is a bilingual country, offering government services in both English and French. But the balance isn't 50-50. French is the dominant language in just one province, Quebec. Only 20 percent of Canadians speak French natively. And francophones are more likely to be bilingual than anglophones. Here's how French and English coexist in Canada and Quebec.

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On today’s lesson: Canada’s complicated bilingualism

Lesson summary

Hi there everyone, I’m Jeff and this is Plain English, where we help you upgrade your English with stories about current events and trending topics. Rarely is English itself the topic—but today is the exception. We’ll be talking about how English and French live side-by-side in Canada. And then on Thursday, we’ll talk about how some changes in Quebec are making English speakers there nervous.

In every Plain English lesson, we also show you how to use a common English expression. Today, that one is “in a pinch,” which is a really good one to know.

This is lesson number 674, so if you’re looking for the transcripts, the quiz, the exercises, then you can find all of that at PlainEnglish.com/674. That is all thanks to JR, the producer.

I think we’re ready. Let’s dive in.

Canada’s complicated bilingualism

If you stroll into a bagel shop or poutine restaurant in Montreal, you’re likely to hear a uniquely Quebecois greeting: “bonjour-hi.” The shopkeeper is greeting you in both English and French at the same time and inviting you to respond in the language that you prefer. It’s no accident that “bonjour” comes first in this bilingual greeting, but it makes everyone feel comfortable.

Canada is officially bilingual. English is the most dominant language. But French is the official language of the province of Quebec, in the east. At the federal, or national level, Canada offers government services and education in both English and French equally: this is protected in the constitution. Private businesses are often required to serve customers in both languages. Food labels, for example, are in both French and English. Signs on federal highways and in airports are in both languages.

So how many people speak English and how many people speak French in Canada?

Let’s start with native language—the language a person learned first as a child. Canada has about 39 million residents. Of them, about 57 percent are native English speakers, about twenty percent are native French speakers, and the rest (23 percent) were raised in another language.

But as anyone in this audience knows, a person’s “native language” is only one part of the story. Many Canadians speak both English and French. Eighteen percent of Canadians consider themselves fully bilingual in English and French.

But also as this audience knows, there are degrees of language dominance. Many English speakers know some French, and vice-versa , even if they don’t consider themselves bilingual. French is taught as a second language in English-speaking schools in Canada, so most English speakers have had at least some exposure to French.

Especially in the east, many families have native-French and native-English speakers in both sides of the family tree. About twelve percent of married couples in Canada are comprised of two partners with different native languages. And many couples with both French and English heritage purposely raise their children to speak both, no matter where they currently live.

Still, there are some language-related tensions. Remember the eighteen percent of Canadians that are bilingual? This masks a big inequality in who, exactly, are the bilingual ones. You see, it’s the native French speakers who are more likely to have learned English than the other way around—a lot more likely.

And remember how the Canadian government provides services in both French and English? The English speakers are more likely to think the government does a good job at providing service in both languages than the French-speakers are. And fewer than half of native English speakers even think it’s important to have two languages in Canada.

What’s more , although the number of French speakers has grown over the years, the proportion of French speakers to English speakers has been declining since the 1970s.

So you can see why native French speakers can sometimes feel defensive about their language. Language is a connection to culture, history, and family and they don’t want to lose that. They fear young people are more interested in English and they fear that the strength of the French language will fade if they don’t protect it.

And so Quebecois defend their French heritage in laws at the province level. Quebec is the only Canadian province with just one official language. In general—and there are a lot of specifics, but in general this means that businesses and customers, government and citizens, can use the language they agree to use. But French must always be an option.

For example, any business with five or more employees must be able to serve a customer in French if the customer wants to speak in French.

Anything written on a product or package must be in French; it can be in English, too, but it must be printed in French.

If you publish a website for a business in Quebec, the site must have a French translation—and the quality of the French translation has to be at least as good as the English translation is. If a customer comments on a social media post in French, the business must reply in French.

Public signs can have writing in any language. But one of the languages has to be French, and the French words have to be bigger and clearer than the words in any other language.

This is all the law, and businesses can be fined for not complying.

Of course English speakers can get by. A lot of people live in Quebec and don’t speak French—either they are anglophones from other parts of Canada or immigrants from other parts of the world. For the most part, this is not a problem, since so many people in Quebec are bilingual.

Many people who work in customer-facing roles, especially in Montreal, speak both English and French fluently. Many doctors and nurses speak both. There is rarely not an English speaker available to translate in a pinch ; many people are happy to translate when needed. Some anglophones do feel discriminated against—they say that people often refuse to speak to them in English even when they can. But for the most part, they get by just fine.

But recently, the government of Quebec has adopted new policies that aim to preserve the dominance of French in the province. And some anglophones say they’re starting to feel uncomfortable in their own country. We’ll talk about that in the next lesson.

Jeff’s take

This is all not to mention the many other languages that are represented in Canada.

Mandarin, Spanish, Punjabi and Arabic are the most commonly spoken languages at home, after French and English. South Asian languages are commonly spoken and growing quickly. There are a lot of indigenous languages, too. So it’s not just French and English.

Anyway, remember on Thursday, we’ll pick this topic back up and talk about recent policy changes in Quebec that are making anglophones nervous.

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Expression: In a pinch